As we’ve commented or touched on Alain de Botton’s work in a number of earlier posts here (Happiness is like compost …, You Don’t Have to Get Mad to Work Here … Anger at Work, and The pleasure and the pain – working with Alain de Botton), we’re delighted to be able to publish a review of his recent book – The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work – by another new guest contributor, Clifford Peat. (We’ve also, as with most of our guest contributors, published Cliff’s Personal Learning Profile.)

… and all the men and women merely players

So well crafted and provocative is this book – The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work , by Alain de Botton – that the conscious act of reading is subsumed by the delight of the thinking process that it evokes.

The author talks to us as he takes a journey through the modern commercial world, sharing his thoughts as he stops to wonder about our role in it and our contribution to the collective intelligence that has produced it.

In London, there was a period when people would stop their own work at lunchtime and gather to watch men at work on the many office construction sites.  One person’s quotidian life is another’s entertainment – and it is that human instinct that De Botton understands and feeds at the same time as finding and exploring the philosophical “worm holes” in the way we live.

He cleverly untangles the web of the global commercial infrastructure that supports our lives and looks hard at things we have long taken for granted. And he writes from a slyly anarchic viewpoint that sharpens his focus, while stopping short of mockery of the world of work and some of its strangeness.

That all sounds as if I liked it – which I did. As I cannot know whether our tastes will be similar, and this blog is widely read by senior business executives, I will describe what I believe to be some of the relevant, interesting and potentially useful themes that are explored (so that you can apply a certain amount of time cost/benefit logic should you be contemplating purchasing a copy).

Many of us will have studied (and use) Peter Checkland’s soft systems methodology, which can help deep analysis of business problems and suggest solutions.  This book could be described as its artistic companion.   It considers the “rich picture”, identifies the stakeholders’ viewpoints and sets out to verify the formula:

          Effectiveness = doing the right thing

          Efficiency = doing things right

De Botton defines “art” as “anything which pushes our own thoughts in important yet neglected areas”.  On that definition, this book qualifies as “art”.

As he looks at a variety of work activities, he captures the single mindedness of the individual “players” as they “do things right”, but hints that they may not question whether they are “doing the right thing”.

We are infused (or perhaps brain-washed – choose your own word) with the work ethic.  However, who amongst us has not paused in their work place and wondered: “What on earth am I doing here?”

It is this question that De Botton sets out to address.  He does so by taking us on a personal journey as he:

  • ponders the efficiency of global logistics systems that can put fresh food harvested in far off lands onto a table in Nottingham in the space of just a few hours
  • scoffs at the serious endeavour required to invent, market and mass produce trivial biscuits
  • marvels at cutting edge science and engineering that launches a satellite within sight of poor, primitive communities in South America
  • spies on the activities of the career adviser who triggers a tearful response as their tax lawyer client gradually perceives the futility of her chosen career
  • admires the narrow specialisation and tenacity of the artist who repeatedly paints the same single tree in an Essex field for five years
  • shares the enthusiasm of an electricity pylon “spotter” as he considers our dependency on these conduits of power
  • discovers that the work of accountancy (“numerical needlework”) is largely ephemeral and that the head of an international firm is pedantically careful to the point of being boring (hold the front page
  • envies the tenacity of inventive entrepreneurs who set out to improve the world and increase their share of it but so often achieve only financial failure and personal despair
  • finds ludicrous and clownish commercial behaviour amongst minor players that  contrasts jarringly with the careful engineering precision of the aircraft manufacturing industry in which they operate

– and neatly ties it all together with a witty and apposite sketch in the remote Mojave desert that provides a metaphor for the theme of the book and leads to some final thoughts in conclusion.

The style of writing – for me – is a constant delight.  A few tasters:

about entrepreneurship: “… seems to be almost wholly dependent upon a sense that the present order is an unreliable and cowardly indicator of the possible”

on offices: that have a “mask of shallow cheerfulness”

on work: “the start of work means the end to freedom, but also to doubt, intensity and wayward desires”

on business plans: “a sub genre of contemporary fiction” assuming markets populated with “characters with deeply implausible personalities” (who are expected to buy the offerings that comprise the top income line).

And finally, for those with the time or inclination to wander into some of the side alleys the author refers to, there is a rich vein of information and opinion.  It has been a delight to be lead to read of Pareto’s ideas other than his “principle”, to discover the perceptive insight of Karl Marx in some essays of 170 years ago,  and to look forward to exploring references to Titian, Newton and Hegel when time permits.

Robert Terry, the CEO of ASK Europe plc, has previously answered the question “If you could talk to your younger self, what advice would you give?” as follows:

Spend less time trying to learn and more time learning to think”

Mr de Botton entertainingly supplies a thinking aid and reiterates that … all the world’s a stage.

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